Wednesday, May 18, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Bear baseball back in Baum

By RAY BENTONLeader sports editor

Not many baseball teams in the state of Arkansas have a more successful history than the Magnolia Panthers, but their opponent in the Class 5A state championship game this weekend is one of them. The Sylvan Hills Bears face Magnolia at 3 p.m. Saturday at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium, and it’s not an unfamiliar place for either team.

Magnolia coach Bobby Beeson is making his second trip to the state title game and looking for his and the school’s second championship. The Panthers had never made the playoffs until 1992, but have been a mainstay ever since, collecting 22 state-tournament appearances since that year. They have been to the semifinals seven times, played in four championship games and won the championship in 2011, Beeson’s first season as head coach.

“We’ve developed a strong baseball tradition around here,” said Beeson. “But Sylvan Hills has a lot of tradition, too. They’ve been to more state championships than we have and won more, too. So I don’t think there’s a big advantage there one way or the other, but if there is, they have it.”

Sylvan Hills leads the entire state, regardless of classification, in state tournament appearances with 46. The Bears are second only to Junction City, by one year in each category, in semifinal appearances, championship game appearances and championships.

The Bears have advanced to the semifinals in half of their tournament appearances.

They have played for a state championship 12 times, and won seven of them. But Magnolia has been there more recently. Sylvan Hills’ last appearance and title was 2008.

Sylvan Hills coach Denny Tipton has been at the helm for the last four championship appearances and has won it three times. He took the Bears to Baum Stadium three-straight years from 2003-’05, and again in ’08.

This year’s matchup is a one-seeded Sylvan Hills against a four seed in Magnolia, but Tipton doesn’t see any advantage in that.

“I told (his players) Magnolia was the best team in the tournament,” said Tipton on Monday. “This is the third year in a row a four seed has been there. In a one-and-done tournament, I really think you throw out the seedings. It’s about being hot at the right time. Magnolia had a good weekend. From what I saw, that’s a very solid team and we’ll have to play well. If we don’t, we’ll get beat.”

The Panthers don’t have a record typical of a four seed. They enter the championship game 21-6 after going 9-5 in the 5A-South.

That conference filled out three quarters of the semifinals this season, and Beeson believes the league prepares teams well for postseason.

“I really think our top four are right there with anybody in the state,” Beeson said of the 5A-South. “So that does help when you get to this point. But I think Sylvan Hills is right there as well. They stack up with anybody we’ve played. From the little bit of scouting I’ve seen, they have four really good pitchers. They can hit the ball throughout the lineup. We’re going to have to be prepared and we can’t make mistakes. They’re solid defensively, so we have to be as well.”

Defense was a bit of an issue for the Panthers early in the season, but they played nearly flawless baseball last weekend.

“We’ve been pretty good most of the time,” Beeson said. “We had some games we didn’t do so well, but we did really well in the tournament, so hopefully we can keep that going.”

Sylvan Hills (28-5) has gone with the same lineup for the last three weeks, and has been dialing in the focus ever since.

“We made that decision with our lineup so we could start getting some consistency as we neared the end,” Tipton said. “Whether or not they had a good game or a bad one, we felt like finding that consistency would be important. I’d say last week was probably the best we’ve been focused, really, probably, since 2009 as far as just really being prepared and being ready. I really felt when we started heading that way, that we were ready. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but I felt like we had the right mindset.”

Neither coach had decided, as of Tuesday, who will be starting on the mound. Neither team has a clear-cut ace, but both teams have multiple good pitchers, and the Panthers’ couldn’t be much more diverse.

Magnolia started Matt Goodheart, a senior right-hander, against Greene County Tech in its first tournament game, a 7-1 win over the 5A-East champion.

Beeson went with 5-foot-4 lefty Jay French in the 7-2 quarterfinal win over Beebe, and 6-foot-4 righty Caleb Ward against White Hall in the 10-4 semifinal game.

Tipton said he’ll make the announcement to his team concerning the starting pitcher today.

River Hunt threw five and two-thirds in the first round against Farmington.

Nick Fakouri went the distance in the quarterfinal win over Valley View, and Mackenzie Seats finished out the Farmington game and went the distance in the semifinals.

“The deal is, I have three really good options,” Tipton said. “That is a good problem to have.”